Ethnic Armenian officials in Nagorno-Karabakh have said they are no longer in control of the enclave’s second-biggest city, hours after denying that Azeri forces have overrun the area.
“We have to admit that a chain of failures still haunts us and the city of Shushi is completely out of our control,” Vahram Poghosyan, a spokesman for the ethnic Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh leader, said in a statement on his official Facebook page on Monday, adding that Azeri forces were closing in on the disputed region’s main city.
“The enemy is on the outskirts of Stepanakert,” he said, “and the existence of the capital is already in danger.”
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Sevan in Armenia, said “a wave of people” had already left Stepanakert. “[The exodus] has started a few days ago. Now, certainly with this announcement, there will be more panic among the few that are still left in Stepanakert.”
Azeris celebrated on the streets of Baku on Sunday after President Ilham Aliyev said his country’s forces had taken Shusha, which Armenians call “Shushi”. Armenian officials had denied the city had been captured before Monday’s admission.
“We liberated Shusha! This is a great victory! Today may the soul of National Leader and our martyrs be praised! I felicitate you, Azerbaijan!” Aliyev tweeted.
Since September 27, Azerbaijan has retaken much of the land in and around Nagorno-Karabakh that it had lost in a war for the breakaway territory which killed an estimated 30,000 in the 1990s.
Several thousand people are feared killed in the latest flare-up of the conflict about the territory which is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians.
Three ceasefires have failed in the past six weeks and Azerbaijan’s superior weaponry and battlefield gains have reduced its incentive to seek a lasting peace deal.
Shusha is bordered by sheer cliffs and could serve as a staging post for an Azeri assault on Stepanakert, military and political analysts said.
The city is culturally significant to both sides.
As fighting intensified during the weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on Saturday to his Turkish and French counterparts – Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Emmanuel Macron, respectively.
Turkey is a key ally of Azerbaijan and Erdogan congratulated Baku after its claim of retaking Shusha, calling it “a sign that the liberation of the rest of the occupied territories is near”.
Turkish involvement would be key to any agreement to halt the fighting and there were reports on Sunday of a plan to agree on a ceasefire and deploy Russian and Turkish peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russia has said it would only intervene if fighting reached Armenian soil after Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan formally asked Putin to begin “urgent” consultations on security assistance.
Russia, which held vast influence in the South Caucasus during Soviet times, has a defence pact with Armenia but also has good relations with Azerbaijan, a gas and oil-producing state whose pipelines have not been affected by the fighting.
Neither Ankara nor Moscow has been drawn directly into the conflict but, in an incident that could fuel tensions, Russia’s defence ministry said on Monday a Russian Mi-24 military helicopter had been shot down over Armenia near the border with Azerbaijan and two crew members killed.
Later on Monday, Azerbaijan said its forces had shot down the helicopter by accident, expressing apologies to Moscow and readiness to pay compensation.